Panhandles--the actual handle on a metal pan--can become very hot when set on the open flame of a kitchen stove or roaring campfire, and so too can the debate about their geographical namesakes. Tensions run high when new panhandle status is awarded and (painfully) denied. The F.B.I. is still investigating two murders from 1991 in Michigan after a panhandle application was shot down for the eighth time. (Michigan was applying to be the official panhandle of the United States, a title that Florida has also been pursuing.)
"The Oklahoma Panhandle is the king of all American panhandles," said Bobby Randolph, a resident of the new Massachusetts Panhandle. "We can't compete with that, but we are happy to finally be recognized officially as a panhandle."
Randolph is referring to the thirty-plus years that it took a small blip in the southern Massachusetts border to become a panhandle. The area is just over four square miles and is regularly referred to as the Mass. Pimple. It is predominately rural and forest-covered, but is home to over 500 residents. On the eastern edge of the handle is the Congamond Lakes, a recreational area very popular during the shortened northern summer.
It is this series of three lakes--the Congamond--that is behind the reason why the Massachusetts-Connecticut border, heading west, takes a sudden turn south for roughly two miles along the lakes, turns slightly southwest for two more, and then back north to join the original east-west path. In 1701, when master border maker Jonathon Sinclair surveyed the colony line, Massachusetts desperately wanted the lakes for their own. "The lakes were abundantly stocked with landlocked freshwater trout, and the people of Mass. wanted these fish at any cost," said historian Dr. Valerie Thomas, the author of "Borders Without Borders: An Uncensored, Behind-the-Scenes Look at State Borders."
"We receive anywhere between 100 and 200 panhandle applications per year," said a very proud Howard Dunleavy, vice president of the United States Panhandle Association of America. "On average we grant panhandle status to less than .00000000000000001 applicants per year." A stingy group.
The U.S.P.A.A., founded in 1902, recognizes only eight panhandles across the country; the Massachusetts Panhandle will be the ninth and the first since Connecticut in 1974. Official Panhandles include: Florida, Texas, Idaho, Alaska, Oklahoma, West Virgina (two), and Connecticut. It is a difficult certification to obtain, for example, Pennsylvania's "chimney," the portion of the northwest part of the Commonwealth that juts north to connect the Keystone State to Lake Erie, first applied to the U.S.P.A.A. in early 1903, just six months after the organization opened its doors: nearly 110 years later ... no panhandle certification.
"Every resident living within the borders of a panhandle--including children of any age--must write a ten-page paper on why they feel panhandle status should be granted," said Dunleavy. "The children essays are often what can hold up applications for years. Some families will send children to live with relatives outside of the panhandle as a way to bypass the writing requirement. But we are so on to that tactic, we're all over it." The writing requirement is one of the known twenty-two parts to the application procedure. The agency usually adds four or five more pieces on the fly for the applicant to complete.
Some past declined applicants have expressed outrage over the announcement of Massachusetts joining the elite company. "We're way more of a panhandle than Mass. is," screamed Carolyn Strump, 53, a lifelong resident of Erie County, Pa. "We apply every year and get denied. There's no way that those Mass. kids all wrote ten-page reports. I could accept Cape Cod, but not that little bump in the border."
Strump's point on Cape Cod was echoed by many other disappointed residents and panhandle experts across the country. "The U.S.P.A.A. is a very secretive organization," said Dr. Clifford Gladwyn, a professor in Oklahoma State University's geography department. "The criteria used in the decision is often concealed. This choice of Congamond Lake over Cape Cod to become a panhandle is very ... fishy. They are the M.P.A.A. of the panhandle world."
Gladwyn's comparison of the M.P.A.A. (Motion Picture Association of America) --the organization that assigns G, PG, PG-13, or R to Hollywood Films--and the U.S.P.A.A., references the former's strict secrecy when it comes to film rating criterion.
Despite the backlash the people of Massachusetts are celebrating the new panhandle with parades, fireworks, and concerts. More than 200,000 are expected to attend the festivities in the tiny area, including former governor Mitt Romney and several Kennedy's.
"We made it!" said one smiling resident. "We did it. We're a panhandle. God dammit, we're a panhandle."